It wasn’t until her death that it was confirmed to me, that my aunt Dolly was a lesbian. The clues were small but enough contained in her cluttered bedroom closet, literally, to affirm what we all had known all our lives. We found a trove of books on life as a lesbian and how other books on dealing with the implications of such a lifestyle. As we found them my father was quick to take over the closet clean up from there. I’m not sure if it was to save her spirit from embarrassment or just to keep her après mort privacy in check. Either way I no longer had access to secret part of the women whom I’d loved so dearly.
But I cherished that small bit of clarity. I knew in my heart it was true but only after she passed was it finally confirmed. She was an abrasive woman with the truth, so if asked she may have hewn me down with her honesty, cutting into my own truth. I was always a bit fearful and in awe of her at the same time. Like standing next to an elephant, she was massive in personality and opinion and if prodded would move just enough to show you who was really in charge.
I spoke with my father a few nights ago and asked if she had ever officially “come out” and he said that perhaps she did, but he wasn’t aware of it. He did say that he had always known about my aunt and wasn’t much of a secret as I had assumed. It was treated more like a character flaw they would ignore, rather than address. He even admitted that they (my parents) questioned whether or not my sister and I should be allowed to hang out with my aunt. My best guess is that my aunt probably told them that they better let us spend time with her or there would hell to pay. She didn’t mince words.
So we went with her, everywhere. We went camping in the summer for weeks at a time. We went to see the circus and musicals in the winter months. She spoiled us rotten and we loved her dearly for it. She was tough as nails but would give us whatever she could afford. In many ways she was more fatherly than our own father. She taught me to bait my own hook and build a fire.
I learned at a very young age that I was never limited by being a girl and that any self respecting woman wouldn’t put up with anyone’s BS. She may have been burly and more manly than any woman that I knew, but she taught me what it meant to be a feminist. She fought for the right to promote women in the Army to higher positions, something they were not currently doing. She even wrote a letter to the president. She rode a motorcycle and was a Sergeant in the Army. She decided never to marry and have children. She was gay before gay was “accepted.” She did not care what people thought.
My parents apparently decided it was best we never approached the subject. I remember asking why she didn’t have a husband or even a boyfriend and they both would give vague answers. My sister and I were so nieve it took until we were in our late teens to come to the conclusion ourselves, but we never asked or spoke about it. The stigma had set in. We were too afraid to offend anyone. So we kept on pretending like we didn’t already know.
It was if we denied part of her to enter our hearts fully with the same love and acceptance. As I got older, and especially now, I feel a bit ashamed and sad because of that part I was never able to give to her. I hope that she knows that I fully love and accept her, and even when she was here, I did love her even though I wasn’t able to acknowledge her fully for who she was.
I’m sure that where ever she is, she is goading me on in my journey to be honest with myself. She would probably say “Suck it up kid, and go with the truth. He will still love you and be your friend after it’s all said and done.” She wouldn’t hide her feelings. I think somewhere in her, she knew about me. I was told by my husband that she didn’t like him, which was a surprise to me at the time. But looking back, I could see why she’d hold him in contempt. He would keep me from my own truth. Unbeknownst to him, he would blur my ideals and hold me back from who I really was. But she respected my decision, and stood aside, quiet for the first time. I guess she knew I would only be stirred by my own inner voice, and years later, finally, my inner voice spoke up.
Apparently I come from a long line of lesbians. I have another aunt that is gay, according to my dad. It makes perfect sense, looking back. I wonder how many more are/were in my family but never were able to speak their truth. I know there are other women in my immediate family who have at least had a lover or two. I wish I knew more… Damn these closets.
What saddens me more than anything is the fact that she had a longtime girlfriend, Mae, whom we considered very much part of the family and we have lost touch with her pretty much the day after my aunt’s funeral. Looking back, by all accounts, she was her “girlfriend” yet she had no rights to anything, as she wasn’t married to her. She also had a husband… It hurt my heart when all the dynamics became clear in my head. I wanted to cry and reach out to Mae but had lost touch with her many years ago. I’m afraid she may in fact, no longer be with us, as she was quite old and frail at the funeral.
I wonder sometimes, if I will end up like Mae, permanently in a closet, losing my secret love and watching that world be cleaned out, like the empty apartment my aunt left behind. I hope that her closet isn’t filled with too many secrets and that her spirit is left unburdened by those secrets she might leave behind. I pray that when the day comes, there will be nothing left to surprise my loved ones, that they will know me by all accounts and love me in my entirety. I hope that when they clean out my closet, they find more memoirs of the person they knew and loved, not the person they wished they knew.